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Felix Salmon Contra Megan McArdle on the Very Large Benefits of a College Education

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

You know, some people who would otherwise go to college will read Megan McArdle in Newsweek and decide not to. And odds are that decision will be a big mistake. Certainly for Newsweek readers, every scrap of evidence I have seen is that the benefits to going to college greatly exceed the costs.

Felix Salmon does the intellectual recycling:

The necessity of a college education: [T]he only thing which has been rising faster than college tuition costs is the wage premium that college graduates receive over those without a degree. A degree is becoming more important, not less, in our digital economy. And so while the cost of going to college is rising, the cost of not going to college is, arguably, rising even faster.

There’s no doubt that colleges do seem to be flabbier, when it comes to controlling costs…. But McArdle doesn’t spend much time wondering about how to change universities’ spending behavior: instead, she concentrates on students’ borrowing behavior. And of the two, it seems to me that the borrowing is more rational than the spending. “It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in,” McArdle writes — but that’s only true if you somehow contrive to drop out of college at the very last possible minute….

[W] college degree gets your foot in a lot of doors, these days, which would otherwise remain shut. And even if you do work your way up the career ladder, that college degree is going to help you, years after you get it, in ways you probably don’t even realize — unless you don’t have one. I can think of two people, in particular, who work alongside college graduates in large organizations with deeply-established HR departments. Both of them are incredibly competent, and would naturally have risen much higher up within their organizations, were it not for the fact that they don’t have degrees. They’ve both been working for many years, to the point at which you’d think that whatever they did or didn’t learn at college would be irrelevant. But it’s not….

The fact is that while this economy is undoubtedly tough for recent graduates, especially those with liberal-arts degrees, it’s much, much tougher for people who don’t have any degree at all. And as the economy recovers, the graduates will get better jobs, more quickly, than their non-college-educated peers. It’s a simple statistical fact. The average amount of student debt per student in this country is large in absolute terms — about $30,000 — but is still a small price to pay for a lifetime of access to jobs and promotions which would otherwise be off-limits. It’s easy to rack up much larger debts than that, but most students don’t….

McArdle also seems unnecessarily worried about the public fisc…. “Expensive”, here, is left undefined — but again, at the margin, what would really be expensive for the government would be to preside over an economy slipping ever further behind in terms of the proportion of young adults going off to college. We need more education, and better education, and cheaper education — we do not need less education….

[T]he answer isn’t for people to start thinking that college is a bad deal. If you’re the kind of person who can read and understand McArdle’s article, and if you are reasonably confident that you can graduate from the undergrad program you’re applying to, then college is still very much a good deal. In fact, for most of the professions you likely aspire to, it’s downright necessary.